Stay cool.
Home
Firsthand Report: Great Allegheny Passage Bike Trail
By Jim Kenney, DCSki Columnist
September 4, 2011

Earlier this summer my next door neighbor came home raving about a fantastic bike trip he had just completed. He and a companion took a five day cycling excursion from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC covering approximately 330 miles on the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) Rail/Trail and C & O Canal Towpath. This combination of trails is reportedly the longest continuous unpaved bike route in the Eastern US.

Western Maryland Scenic RR Diesel Locomotive at the Frostburg Depot. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

Based on my neighbor’s recommendation (thanks Knut) I recently made a much shorter weekend trek with my son Vince focused on the very scenic portion of the GAP trail between Frostburg, MD and Ohiopyle, PA. We didn’t quite make it as far west as Ohiopyle, but starting in Frostburg, MD we had a great time logging about 70 miles on the trail over two days, August 13 and 14, 2011.

Trail Inn B&B/Café/Campground at Frostburg, MD, near mile 15. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

With a lazy Saturday morning start we left Northern Virginia and arrived about 2.5 hours later at noontime in Frostburg. We parked at the Trail Inn B&B/Café which is close to mile marker 15 on the Gap Trail. Because we’re cycling novices we decided to do an out and back route. We rode west until we felt we’d hit our outbound limit at mile marker 36, then retraced our route back to Frostburg for a 42-mile ride that took about four hours. Despite threatening skies we did not see any rain during the ride and decided to pitch a tent at the Trail Inn campground ($20 per night for two campers). We took advantage of their bathhouse and enjoyed a breakfast in the Inn’s café the next morning.

If you like peaceful bike rides in the country this route is the perfect choice. Much of the surface of the GAP trail consists of crushed limestone and the tempo of riders is quite mellow. We traveled at ten miles per hour and fit right in. Hybrids and conservative mountain bikes are the rule. Since this is a former railroad bed the grade is always very gradual and the pedaling is easy.

Although I do a little bike commuting and Vince often rides an exercise bike at the gym, we are by no means advanced cyclists. We’re living proof that a trip on the GAP trail can be enjoyed by the most casual bike riders. In fact, we never saw fast moving road bikers. In anything but bone dry conditions their thin tires can sink into the unpaved trail and make for slow going.

The Mason Dixon Line near mile 21. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

First day highlights included crossing over/through several bridges and tunnels. We thought the long, lighted Big Savage Tunnel at mile marker 22 was especially cool (in more ways than one). It’s about two-thirds of a mile long. The $12 million restoration of this tunnel in 2006 connected McKeesport to DC, and an additional $10 million has been spent to complete 8 of the final 9 miles before the full bike route is completed between Pittsburgh and DC. That leaves one remaining mile, which may be completed by the end of 2012.

represented the last link in completing the full bike route between Pittsburgh and DC. We also crossed the Mason Dixon Line from MD into PA and passed over the Eastern Continental Divide at an elevation of 2392 feet, the highest point on the GAP Trail.

Salisbury Viaduct (1908’ length) passes over the Casselman River, Route 219, and an active CSX mainline near mile 34. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

After our camp-out in Frostburg we packed up on Sunday morning and drove about 30 minutes for the start of our next bike ride at the Meyersdale, PA Train Station/Museum (approximately GAP Trail mile marker 33). Sunday started as a very pretty day, but we didn’t want to stay too late, so we turned around at mile marker 48 about a dozen miles shy of Ohiopyle. We saw a few showers during the 30 mile ride, but not until we were nearly done.

Keystone Viaduct (909’ length) near mile 30 utilizes a former RR bridge. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

The highlight of the second day was a great lunch stop at the Mill Shoppes in the little town of Rockwood, PA (approximately mile 43). They serve hot and cold sandwiches and had some outstanding and relatively inexpensive homemade ice cream. The coconut cream and chocolate turtles flavors are recommended for a mid-ride energy boost. The trail parallels rivers and an active train line in this beautiful corner of the Laurel Highlands where the sound of train whistles frequently splits the otherwise tranquil air. We noticed easy access from the trail to numerous potential swimming holes.

The Rockwood Mill Shoppes (~mile 44) are in the central building in this photo. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

In conclusion, the GAP trail has a lovely rural quality with a heavy dose of railroading lore. I’m told it is quite popular during Leaf Peeping Season, but on a Saturday in August you can go five miles between human sightings (or opportunities to fill your water bottle). Yet it seems that every 60-90 minutes there is a surprising little town with B&Bs, campgrounds, cafés, and maybe a train station or bike shop. It’s not as isolated as it feels and excellent services can regularly be found along or near the trail. Perhaps I’m late to a party that has already started, but our weekend trip gave me the impression that the GAP trail is an exceptional recreational asset that is just beginning to emerge as a major destination for biker-tourists. You should check it out while it has this wonderful air of discovery.

Borden Tunnel (957’ length) near mile 18. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

Related Links

Ad: Canaan Valley Resort

Amy Camp
3 years ago
Jim, I’d like to talk with you about your trip on the GAP. I work for a non-profit that works in trail communities along the GAP. Can you email me at acamp@progressfund.org?

Thanks!
Amy
Sharpen your edges. And pencils.
If you'd like to share your own comments, please log in to DCSki.
Don't have a profile? Create one here.
Page load time: 0.06 seconds